Cambodian girls working at hostess bars or freelancing in Phnom Penh come from a variety of social backgrounds. A girl’s hands often tell a tale but you don’t need to be an experienced palm reader to read them. Soft hands mean she is likely from the city, usually Phnom Penh, whereas tough hands belong to girls from the countryside who have spent countless hours planting, tending, and harvesting rice. Calloused hands are evidence of the hard work they have done. Whether they are from the city or the countryside, these girls have found their way to Phnom Penh’s bars, charming foreigners to earn money in a variety of ways and do so for a variety of reasons.
Many of the girls that foreigners are likely to meet grew up in Phnom Penh and have lived a life that is typical for Cambodian girls. They grew up they going to school every day, had a loving family, friends, and plans for marriage. At some point something may have gone awry. Common reasons for working as a hostess or freelancer include the death of a parent, an unplanned pregnancy, or a medical situation that the family couldn’t afford. Often though, it is just another job that a girl can choose to do to earn money. Working at a bar for foreigners offers an opportunity to earn money at the cost of a girl reputation. You’ll find girls like these at bars and discos such as Heart of Darkness, Walkabout, Martini, Pontoon and Sharky Bar.
Girls from the provinces most likely grew up on a small plot of land where their family grew rice or other fruits and vegetables that could be sold at market. The conditions for this agricultural living are difficult. A bad growing season can force a family into debt, medical facilities are usually very far away, limited family planning causes some families to grow larger that their land can support, and public schooling for brothers and sisters costs money (perhaps 25 cents a day, which is a high price by rural standards). Cambodian girls from the provinces are very traditional. Growing up they cook, clean, and serve. Touching a male who is not immediate family could ruin her reputation. To earn extra money some girls move away to find work at one of Phnom Penh’s garment factories on the outskirts of the city; however, this work pays only $50 a month and after rent and food, there is very little left to send home. Some girls work all day sewing then head to a bar in the city center in the evening. A few successful evenings at a freelance bar can augment her income considerably. Some girls are actively recruited to work in hostess bars where they can earn $70 a month as well as tips. For Cambodian girls from the provinces, Phnom Penh’s bars are a world away from the life they had at home.
Whatever the situation, Cambodian girls working in bars geared toward foreigners often have some sort of extra responsibility on their shoulders. Employment opportunities are not good for a girl with limited education. In the provinces, there are virtually no employment opportunities other than growing or gathering food and cash crops, transporting them, and selling them in the market. Tourism may provide some income in the future as demand for guides, restaurant workers, and professional drivers grows. In Phnom Penh, Cambodian girls work at beauty salons, massage parlors, in restaurants, or as cleaners, housekeepers, and garment workers. Working in a hostess bar is among the jobs with the greatest earning potential and because of this it is the best employment opportunity for some girls, but it comes at a cost. These girls likely sacrifice their prospects for marriage as reputations are easily tarnished through such jobs. Cambodian men look for good girls from nice families and these girls do not fit the bill after working as a freelancer. The decision to enter on this line of work is not taken lightly.
Cambodian girls in this situation sometimes do very well for themselves. Although they have few prospects with Cambodian men, they may marry a foreigner, which, in many cases, is the best possible outcome as foreigners often treat girls nicely (compared to patriarchal Cambodian men) and have a much greater earning potential. Raising a family with a foreign guy is usually the preferable option for Cambodian girls who have become familiar with foreigners while working in Phnom Penh’s bar scene. Although it is relatively common to find foreign guys married to Cambodian girls, most foreign guys who go to these bars are not looking for a wife.
The lives of the girls who work at the glut of hostess bars in Phnom Penh is complicated and difficult. The decision to work at such a bar often begins with the best of intentions such as working only for the salary and tips, but easily progresses to leaving with customers on a “bar fine” to accompany them to a nearby guesthouse. Such work can become a career for Cambodian girls, at least for part of their lives, but they usually leave this line of work before they are thirty. Hopefully jobs at bars that cater to foreigners will end with a marriage to a kind loving guy who will support his Cambodian wife; however, the reality of the state of affairs for most Cambodian girls in this line of work is that they live a tough life and that they are doing the best they can in a situation where there are very few alternatives.
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